‘The complete opposite of what Washington University means to me’: Student petition calls for changes to Disability Resources
Editor’s Note: This article contains mention of eating disorders. Resources are listed at the bottom of this page.
More than 150 people have signed a petition calling for changes to Washington University resources for disabled students.
The petition, which University College student Danny Lawrence created earlier this semester, advocates for the hiring of a full-time staff member who would mediate interactions between disabled students and the University’s Disability Resources (DR) office. The petition also calls for the formation of a committee within the Center for Diversity in Inclusion to determine how the Americans with Disabilities Act will be followed and interpreted.
Lawrence, who is blind, hopes to garner enough support with the petition to file a class-action lawsuit against the University for emotional damages caused by DR.
“All my experiences around Washington University have been excellent except one department, and that’s the department that’s supposed to help me,” Lawrence said.
According to Lawrence, DR took away his academic assistant in the middle of his second semester at the University. In the subsequent semester, Lawrence said DR cut the hours of his academic assistant from 15 to eight. He said the time he spent without proper accommodations was extremely challenging.
“Imagine I’m totally blind. I’m in a society situation where every day, everything is visual. I was a fish out of water,” Lawrence said.
He also spoke to his discomfort with Washington University Police Department vehicles being the only transportation made available to him by the University in the evenings.
“After five o’clock, there’s no transportation at Washington University but the campus police. Mind you, I’m a Black guy,” Lawrence said. “They had a golf cart but they don’t want to even give you the golf cart.”
Lawrence said that one obstacle to receiving necessary support is that the ADA only requires the school to provide him “reasonable accommodations.” He said his definition of what is reasonable differs from that of the school.
“They tried to use the ADA act against me, talking about ‘all we have to do is give you reasonable accommodations,’” Lawrence said. “What you might think is reasonable, I might not think it’s reasonable.”
Lawrence also said that DR generalizes people with disabilities, causing the accommodations provided to be inadequate for all students.
“The people in the disability office feel like if one person with a disability can do it, why can’t you do that,” Lawrence said. “Disability rule 101, you don’t compare people with disabilities to one another. Everybody’s situation is different.”
Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications Julie Flory said the University highly values disabled members of the campus community and that DR would be happy to discuss their concerns.
“The Office of Disability Resources continues to work toward the advancement of disability awareness and accessibility at WashU. We consider our students, faculty and staff with disabilities to be integral members of our community and an important part of our efforts in creating and supporting a diverse and inclusive community,” Flory wrote in a statement to Student Life. “If students with disabilities have concerns regarding their experience at WashU or the accommodations they have received, we encourage them to reach out to Disability Resources so we can have a conversation and determine how we can support them.”
Izzy Kornblau, a 2019 University graduate with disabilities, voiced her support for Lawrence’s petition.
“Students with disabilities, oftentimes, they’re forgotten about,” Kornblau said. “It’s not okay that somebody’s schooling needs to be hindered by the fact that their housing situation makes it more difficult for them to get to class or just to succeed.”
Kornblau said she spent around 30 hours negotiating her housing accommodations, only to receive a fraction of what she hoped.
She also added that after disclosing that her doctor believed she had gastroparesis, a condition that causes partial stomach paralysis, a DR employee’s response made her uncomfortable.
“[The employee] was basically trying to say that like, ‘oh she’s worked with people before who have gastroparesis, but they’ve all gotten it from an eating disorder,’ [so she said] ‘were you dealing with like an eating disorder or something?’” Kornblau said. “First of all, I wasn’t, but second of all, even if I was, the way in which she said it was just so rude and it made me so uncomfortable. It was just so dismissive.”
As a result, Kornblau wished there was a better mechanism to file complaints about DR.
“If I was having a problem getting an accommodation, the only place I could then think to go would be Disability Resources, but they were the ones that are making it difficult for me to get the accommodation,” Kornblau said.
Hana Bekele, a blind graduate student at the Brown School of Social Work, also supports the petition, citing her inability to receive necessary accommodations in a timely manner.
Bekele said at one point it took nearly half a semester for her to get an academic assistant. “It was frustrating for me, because it made me not complete my assignments,” she said. “You have to struggle just to get that accommodation. They know that I need that accommodation.”
She hopes that the petition will help disabled students get the accommodations they need.
“The need of the students with disabilities and the resources available in Disability Resources is not compatible,” Bekele said. “I think [the petition] will improve Disability Resources, because they will then know what the gaps are.”
Speaker of the Student Union Senate sophomore Nkemjika Emenike said that SU hopes to amplify the voices of disabled students in order to get their needs met by the University.
“I think there are a lot more conversations that we as student leaders need to initiate with students on our campus who are disabled to kind of figure out what those needs are, what the next steps are and how we can help amplify their voices whether that be through campaigns or protests, petitions, more pressure on administration,” Emenike said. “That’s definitely something I want to prioritize as speaker.”
She said that ability is not included often enough in campus conversations around diversity.
“I know for a fact that it is not prioritized or emphasized in any regard. I mean I’m guilty of this, SU’s guilty of this, Wash. U. admin are guilty of this, Wash. U. as an institution is guilty of this,” Emenike said. “I think every able-bodied student is guilty of not really centering disabled voices as part of the conversation within diversity and inclusion.”
Emenike supports the petition and its initiative to create a committee for disability within the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, emphasizing the importance of the head of the committee being disabled.
“As someone who works a lot with diversity and inclusion, the main obstacle that you face when working in that area is that it affects so many different identities, and there’s no way that one person can hold every single identity that represents every single person on this campus. If there was a specific committee about a specific issue, I’d advise someone who identifies with that issue [to be in charge].”
Lawrence agreed on the importance of having representation among leadership, voicing his concern that Chris Stone, who took over as director of DR in May 2020, does not have a physical disability.
“When can your disability trump somebody that’s able-bodied? Surely, if you’re a director going over a department that’s helping people with disabilities… You’d have representation,” Lawrence said. “[There is a] 90% chance that a person with a physical disability would not be treating people like Chris Stone is treating us right now.”
In an email to Student Life, Stone said he would not discuss specific students or situations. He pointed out the grievance process available to students who would like to report discrimination committed by DR or a complaint about accommodations.
“Disability Resources continually strives to engage with students through an interactive process in which we remain empathetic and responsive to student concerns, and transparent in our work,” Stone wrote. “Should a student believe their needs are not be[ing] adequately addressed, Washington University has an explicit process by which a student may appeal a decision or submit a grievance regarding the implementation of accommodations or discriminatory practices encountered.”
Stone echoed Flory’s point that DR remains committed to promoting inclusion and equity.
“Disability Resources takes its responsibility to support the equitable inclusion of disabled students at Washington University very seriously,” Stone said. “Accommodation determinations are not only based on our obligations under the law, but also on a social justice philosophy. To this end, Disability Resources engages proactively with faculty, staff, and the University community to develop a culture of inclusion and equity for students, including those with disabilities.
Still, Lawrence plans to continue pushing for better resources so other students with disabilities will be able to avoid the struggles he experienced.
“People might say ‘Danny, why are you fighting for this?’” Lawrence said. “Because I want people to be able to have a great opportunity at Washington University, like I had. If it wasn’t for Washington University, I don’t know where I would have been, but when it comes to disability services, it’s the complete opposite of what Washington University means to me.”
The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) provides support for individuals and families affected by eating disorders through their toll-free, confidential hotline. It can be reached at 1-800-931-2237, Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Central Standard Time and on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For 24/7 assistance, text ‘NEDA’ to 741741